skip to main content

Sea eagle

What action is going on for this species?

The following will give you information on what work has been taking place through the Species Action Framework:

Species background

The white-tailed or sea eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) is found mainly in coastal areas and is the UK's largest bird of prey. Adults have a conspicuous pale head and neck, a white tail and yellow beak. Immature birds are much darker brown with a black beak initially and very limited white in the tail. They take around 5 years to reach adult plumage through a series of moults where the plumage become paler brown. Over the same time the beak becomes increasingly yellowish and the tail whiter.

Why is this on the Species Action List?

It meets criterion 1b of the Species Action Framework, as a species for conservation action.  

It is a formerly extinct species, whose reintroduction is not yet considered complete.  The current west coast population is still small and, whilst growing in number, remains largely confined to a restricted area. 

There is now a proposal to undertake an east coast reintroduction to improve the conservation status of the species across Scotland and the UK as a whole.

The white-tailed eagle has been described as having an 'unfavourable' conservation status across Europe.  The species has been well studied and the experiences of the west coast reintroduction will be essential in any further reintroduction work.  It is a high profile species which can be used in raising biodiversity issues more broadly, including specific management issues such as persecution.  The IUCN reintroduction guidelines have been, and will continue to be, applied.

It is a Scottish Biodiversity List species. It is listed on Annex I of the EC Birds Directive and is specially protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, as amended.

Habitat, distribution and abundance

The UK distribution is confined to the west coast of Scotland where it was reintroduced over a period of years, from 1975 to 1998.  Most of Scotland's white-tailed eagle population (which numbered 52 pairs in 2010) is now found on Mull, Skye, Small Isles and the Outer Hebrides. It continues to spread its range with some pairs on the West Highland mainland coast and expansion more widely in the Inner Hebrides. 

In the UK, it is mainly a coastal species, occupying rocky coastlines.  It also occurs in upland habitats and is found near rivers and large lakes which, in Europe and Russia, may be several hundred miles inland. Wintering areas are similar to the breeding habitats. 

The European breeding population is small (5,000-6,600 pairs) but has increased since 1970.  The largest populations are found in Norway and Russia, with important populations also found in south-west Greenland.

General ecology

Sea eagles feed on a wide range of prey items, including fish, hares, rabbits, ducks and seabirds, as well as scavenging for carrion especially during the winter months.  Nests in Scotland are mostly built in trees, but crags and cliffs are used elsewhere and these huge structures are either used in successive years or alternated with other sites in the territory.  Two, occasionally three eggs are laid in March, though sometimes as late as April, with chicks fledging in late July or August. Breeding usually occurs from four or five years old, but territory establishment may be earlier.

History of decline, contributory factors and current threats

In the 19th century over 100 eyries were known from Britain, with birds breeding in Scotland, England and the Isle of Man, and 50 in Ireland.  However, following prolonged persecution in the early 19th century, it became extinct in the UK with the last bird shot on Shetland in 1916.  Habitat loss was not a factor.

Following reintroduction efforts on the west coast, birds quickly settled in Mull and Skye, and the population, although small, is currently expanding. 

In western Europe, numbers also declined dramatically and its range contracted during the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries due mainly to persecution but also to environmental pollution (e.g. mercury, organochlorines).  This trend has been in reverse in the north-west of the range since the 1970s, but it is still in decline in south-east Europe.

Globally, current threats include loss and degradation of wetlands, increasing human disturbance, indiscriminate use of poisons, collisions with wind turbines, and reduced availability of suitable habitat, and susceptibility to environmental pollution leading to reduced breeding success.

The 'Species Lead' at Scottish Natural Heritage  Tel 01546 603611

Contact details of staff who can help you with the Sea Eagle Management Scheme are provided on page 8 of the Management Scheme booklet  PDF document on the Sea eagle Management Scheme page

Last updated on Monday 18th November 2013 at 16:24 PM. Click here to comment on this page